A few days ago Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter died peacefully in his sleep aged 76, having fought prostate cancer in Toronto, the New Jersey native’s adopted home. This medical illness was his last fight and almost certainly his least notorious, having been a professional middleweight boxer from 1961-66 and a ‘contender’ for the World title. His pugilistic profession was still not his most difficult. Far from it. His conflict with the law, which started when he was sent to a juvenile reform centre after committing assault, aged 11, and continuing until his death, led him to notoriety, not least through Bob Dylan’s classic musical homage ‘Hurricane’. In 1967 Carter was convicted, alongside new friend John Artis, for three murders at a New Jersey bar the year before.
These convictions, for an apparently motiveless triple murder were based on palpably inadequate evidence, most notably from Alfred Bellow and Arthur Bradley, two professional burglars who had seen the guilty men while themselves out to rob the same bar. Their descriptions of the men were not close to those of Carter and Artis. Evidence was thin, largely concocted and based on the vengeance of Vincent de Simone, the police officer involved in arresting Carter as a child. As well as resenting Carter’s sporting success and popularity De Simone tirelessly sought retribution for his further criminal behaviour, and happened to be on duty 18 years later.
Due to Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ and other ‘celebrity’ support Carter and Artis’ convictions were the subject of huge media and public interest. Carter’s story received further attention through Norman Jewison’s clunky, but well-received 1999 film Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington. Carter never ceased pleading his innocence, defying his prison guards from the first day of his sentence, spending time in solitary confinement because of it. ‘When I walked into prison, I refused to wear their stripes,” he said. “I refused to eat their food. I refused to work their jobs, and I would have refused to breathe the prison’s air if I could have done so.”
Rubin Carter had escaped from the juvenile reform centre and joined the Army in 1954, where he experienced racial segregation and learned to box. Upon returning home he spent four years in various state prisons for a series of muggings, but through boxing he found success. As Dylan narrated in De Simone’s eyes, “that son of a bitch is brave and getting braver”, but a murderer he was not. If his story simply belonged in the past and had little relevance today, it could be seen as a lesson learned, as (despite many who still believe in Carter and Artis’ guilt) it highlighted racial bigotry, intolerance and demonisation of the poor, the minorities and working classes. Sadly, the last 50 years following this event have seen the likes of Carter and Artis become pawns in a different class-based game – one where America’s rich are capitalising on and in effect controlling the nation’s prison system.
In the USA today the top 1%, who own over 40% of the nation’s wealth, are blatantly exploiting the overwhelming majority of people in American prisons who are non-violent, lower-class drug offenders. The expanding use of prison industries, paying slave wages, are a way to increase profits for giant organisations and military corporations – federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens as well as all manner ofhigh-tech electronic components and equipment – and are a frontal attack on the rights of all workers.
Human rights organisations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning this new form of inhumane exploitation in the USA, where a prison population of around 2 million – mostly Black and Hispanic – are working for next to nothing. For the fat cats, part of the ‘1%’ who have invested in the prison industry, it has been a capitalist wet dream. A reliable workforce who, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, is locked up in isolation. The American government still endorses slavery, and it is in the prison system where this Wall Street based exploitation industry is one of the fastest-growing in the USA.
As for Rubin Carter, following his eventual release in 1985, he worked tirelessly with the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted in Canada, where he was the face of the organisation for many years. He may have been a flawed man, but in demanding justice for himself and others he became an inspiration to many.
“Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten foot cell
An innocent man in a living Hell”